22 February 2011
Cores for celebration: Intel's second generation Core processors welcomed by board level designers
There was a time when the industrial computing market wasn't that interested in such aspects as power consumption and graphics performance. But times change; today, these figures are of high importance to product developers, along with another important parameter, that of size.
So the recent introduction by Intel of the SandyBridge range of processors – officially known as the second generation iCore processor range – has had an enthusiastic welcome from board manufacturers, particularly because Intel has committed to support the new family for seven years.
The performance boost has come from moving to a 32nm process, but SandyBridge has been further enhanced by the application of what Intel calls a 'visibly smart' microarchitecture in which visual and 3d graphics technology is integrated with the processor core on one chip.
Seven devices in the range
So far, seven devices have been released: two quad core Core i7 parts running at 2.1GHz; two dual core Core i5 parts running at 2.5GHz; a quad core i7 running at 3.4GHz; a quad core i5 running at 3.1GHz; and a dual core i3 running at 3.3GHz. Total device power ranges from 35W for the dual core 2.5GHz i5 to 95W for the quad core 3.4GHz i7.
Nigel Forrester, market development manager for Emerson Network Power, explained the attraction of the chip. "For the first time, we have access to a chipset with four processor cores that has a thermal design power of 45W." Forrester noted that Emerson's customers are pushing for products which offer more MIPS/W, but he added that graphics performance is becoming equally important. "For example, if you're looking to build gaming machines with two or three displays showing real time video, then graphics performance is very important. If you can access internal graphics capability, then it saves having to use an external graphics card, which saves cost."
Emerson Network Power is using the Core processor in the MITX-CORE-800, a Mini ITX format motherboard.
Richard Kirk, global product manager for single board computers with GE Intelligent Platforms, said: "One of the key things is the vector engine. Instead of just being a processor, the device has also got good floating point capability, which makes it ideal for radar." He compared the approach with Freescale's Altivec technology. "It's along the same lines, but better."
congatec's business development manager Bob Pickles also highlighted the benefit of more cores. "Customers are running more software and more cores means more processing power. congatec is always looking at new chipsets in order to develop a scalable set of COM cards. This allows customers to pick the best card for their application."
congatec's offering is the conga-BM67. This is available in two formats: with the Core i7-2710; or with the Core i5-2510. It boasts six PCI-Express lanes, four serial ATA links and eight USB ports.
Gaming has particular needs
Pickles also pointed out the importance of the graphics capability. "If you look at a 3d arcade gaming system, it's graphics and video intensive. You need a more powerful product to handle that, but it needs to be in the same form factor."
Emerson is also using the Corei7-2710 and Core i5-2510 in its products, but these adopt the Mini ITX form factor. Featured on board is one x16 PCI Express socket, two SATA 6G and two SATA 3G headers, four USB ports on 9pin headers and two USB ports on eUSB headers. It says the board is designed for applications such as intelligent kiosks, digital signage, medical cart and slot machines.
The part has also been design with future Core processors in mind. Kirk said that, from a generic point of view, the graphics processor is the more important development. "The first generation of the Core i7 gave significant improvement on what came before. Now, it's at least twice the performance with the second generation. The graphics engine is also a viable alternative to a separate graphics card so, instead of having to buy two products, they can buy one and leave a mezzanine site free for another application."
Available in a range of formats Embedded computing developer Kontron is also adopting the new processors; its first offering is the ETXexpress-SC, a COM Express board. But it plans to bring the Core processor to market in a range of formats. Within the next few weeks, Mini-ITX and Flex-ATX embedded motherboards will be launched, as well as a 6U CompactPCI blade.
Other platforms planned for 2011 include 3U CompactPCI, 3U VPX, AdvancedMC, PCIe/104 and ATX. Why does Kontron rate the new Core processors? 'As well as incorporating a memory controller with error correction and PCI-Express 2.0, the processor includes a power graphics unit on the same die.
The unit's clock speed is variable, which optimises power consumption, and the new ring architecture allows the graphics and processor cores to share resources efficiently. Application developers will benefit from improved computing power and graphics performance whilst energy efficiency remains the same'.
Forrester pointed out that Intel has done 'some specific things' with the Core processor. "We're taking advantage of some of these," he said, "including the AVX instruction set." AVX, or advanced vector instructions, is a 256 bit instruction set extension designed for floating point intensive applications. "It enables higher video processing performance," he added. "Some applications, including diagnostic imaging, get that for free," he added. Emerson is also using the vPro features, which enhance security. Another Intel enhancement is Turbo Boost, which shifts or reallocates processor cores and graphics resources in order to give an immediate performance boost when needed.
GE Intelligent Platforms has built the SBC324 around the dual and quad core versions of the Core i7. The 3U VPX board is expected to find use beyond the traditional military applications, potentially in signal processing. Kirk said: "Boards based on the new Core processor won't open up brand new markets to us, but they will allow us to get into more markets on a more regular basis. "For example, we have recently been developing gpu based products. These need a hefty processor and the fastest possible interconnect. All of a sudden, we can double throughput."
Ideal for radar Kontron believes products based on the new Core processors will be 'ideal' for applications in which large amounts of data have to be processed in a limited thermal envelope. Examples include radar, image processing and video surveillance. It also points out that Core based products can also control up to three displays independently of each other and can support cable runs of up to 10m.
Forrester said that second generation Core processors probably offer 25% more performance, 'depending on what you're doing'. "But the fact that you can do more for less is an advantage and it encourages companies to refresh designs." Pickles said that not every customer was looking for high performance. "Some are looking for low power, so it's important to have a range of options." Kirk concluded: "MIPS/W is an important metric, but it does depend on what you're doing with the system. The latest Core processors are not just a die shrink, they bring better efficiency."
Emerson Network Power
GE Intelligent Platforms Ltd
Intel Corporation (UK) Ltd
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